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Controversial Alabama Governor's Daughter Promotes Racial Tolerance

  • Chris Simkins

February is Black History Month in the United States -- a time to pay tribute to events that helped shape the history of African Americans. A pivotal moment in that history happened 51 years ago, after two African-American students became the first to be admitted to an all-white university in the southern U.S. state of Alabama.

The move came despite efforts by Alabama's then-Governor George Wallace to prevent the school's integration, in defiance of federal government orders.

The daughter of the controversial governor is now speaking out about the dark chapters of civil rights history in a quest to promote racial harmony.

"It stained Alabama, of course, but it stained him for the rest of his life," said Peggy Wallace, who recalls the painful legacies of her father and the mark he left on a racially-divided southern state five decades ago.

Running as a segregationist, George Wallace took office in 1963, pledging to maintain a way of life in Alabama.

"I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," he said.

At the height of the civil rights movement, Wallace defiantly defended state and local laws that sought to keep blacks and whites separated in schools, restaurants and many other public places. He gained worldwide attention when he tried to block two black students from attending the all-white University of Alabama.

Peggy Wallace -- just 13 years old at the time -- recalls the impact of her father's actions.

"The rest of the world, when they saw his name or a picture of him, there’s an asterisk by his name or picture: 'That’s the man who stood in the Schoolhouse Door, that blocked the two African-American students from entering that university,'” she said.

Confronted by federal authorities with a court order, Wallace finally stepped aside and the black students entered the school.

Peggy Wallace married and raised a family -- rarely speaking about her father until the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president in 2008.

"I decided that day that I had to do something, you know," she said. "I had to stand for something, leave a legacy to both of my children. And that was later on in my years, but I was able to find my own voice and step away from the shadow of the Schoolhouse Door."

Now Wallace is doing all she can to erase the bigotry her father promoted by advocating racial tolerance. For the last several years, she has joined forces with black civil rights activists in commemorating a bloody siege on a bridge in Selma, Alabama. It's where her father ordered state police to brutally attack civil rights marchers. Crossing the bridge years later, Wallace even joined hands with Congressman John Lewis who was beaten by police there nearly 50 years ago.

"They came toward us beating us with night sticks, tramping us with horses, releasing the tear gas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I had a concussion at the bridge. I thought I was going to die," Lewis said.

"Well for me, it was that journey with John Lewis, it was a turning point for me in my life," she said. "He teaches and lives love and reconciliation, and I don’t think I’m rubbing anything off the asterisk [that my father left] but I would like to think that."

Peggy Wallace is now writing a book about coming out of the shadows of her father's legacy. She also speaks to young people hoping to foster racial reconciliation, not the bigotry her father promoted in the 1960s.
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